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29 September 2011

The Books Interview: James Palumbo

The founder of the Ministry of Sound talks about clubbing, satire, and funding the Lib Dems.

By Samira Shackle

Tancredi is a satire about greed and excess. Is there a solution for that “short -termism”?
I flipped through the TV last night and immediately I saw a bottom on Big Brother. In a few weeks time, on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, in the jungle, it will be “who can eat a bug”, or who can be the most moronic. There is a trend, isn’t there? I don’t know if you can do anything about it. I’m raising the question of where it’s all going to lead.

Are we in the midst of a crisis of culture?
I don’t like the word crisis, because I don’t want to sound like a grandmother. People enjoy these shows. But I think – everyone is getting fatter, aren’t they? Where is it all going to end? We already have feature films where there are gladiatorial combats, using people for the amusement of the crowds. Are we going to go back to the days of the arena, where horrible things happen in public and that’s what people want?

Tancredi satirises political correctness as well as reality TV culture.
I’m really interested in the tension between being idealistic in politics – which probably leads to oblivion – and being pragmatic, which seems to lead to status. One would have thought that the purpose of politics is to lead, to take initiative, to break the rules. Look at Obama at the UN. He can’t support the Palestinians – everybody else wants to, but he doesn’t want to piss off the Israeli lobby in Florida, because of the primaries. There doesn’t seem to be any point where somebody will take a risk, because when you stray too far from centre, you get obliterated.

Did you always want to write?
I left home pretty young. I wanted to make money. I got caught in that mentality that I must succeed; I must build things up; working all the time. After so many years, I reached a point where, without sounding too dramatic, I was wondering what it was all about. At school I loved Shakespeare, I loved Chaucer. I’ve always liked writing silly poems for my son, so I guess inwardly, subconsciously or innately, I wanted to give it a go. That’s a million miles away from whether I’m any good at it.

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You first novel, Tomas, was also a satire. What attracts you to the form?
It’s the way I think. Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite authors. I like imagination, I like fantasy, and satire flows from that absurd situation.

As the founder of the Ministry of Sound, do you think the clubbing scene is ripe for satire?
Yes, it’s top of my list. I’m not a puritan. I’m not a prude. I’ve made my money from night clubs. But that’s where I started with Tomas. I always remember one night, years ago. You change your prices according to the music and the night. I asked the manager why the bar prices were double the usual. He said: “The guys actually prefer to pay more.” It is just a horrifying, wasteful, awful useless world populated by horrifying, awful, wasteful people.

Which writers have influenced you?
In terms of style, it is people like Vonnegut. I just can’t believe how those ideas pop into his head. Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead is a huge influence. I know it’s very dense, but it’s very clear what it’s about. I buy into that.

Does satire have a role to play in society?
Satire at its best, yes – with Gulliver’s Travels and Candide it worked. Otherwise, it plays maybe a 5 per cent role. We are so frustrated, angered, surprised, bewildered, and worried by so many things. Maybe my writing is an expression of how I feel like about what’s going on.

Where is your focus for the future?
I stepped away from my main business about four years ago. Once you’re no longer chief executive, that’s it. I’ve been doing some writing. I’m helping a few friends of mine in politics. I’m trying to have a different, more creative, slightly more thoughtful kind of future, without the cash-flows and balance sheets.

Did you foresee the success of Ministry of Sound?
It was a club which was open till midnight, in a very rough location, with no alcohol. On the face of it, they were all criteria for failure. But you’re only going to succeed when you differentiate yourself, when you do something off the beaten track. I didn’t see it but I realised that there was something there.

Where did the idea come from?
Like a lot of other people, we brought a tried and tested American idea to the UK. A guy called Justin Berkmann, who spent time in New York, had gone to this club called Paradise Garage. It was archetypal, and Ministry of Sound was in many ways a copy. It went all night, playing a particular type of music, with a huge sound system. It was Justin’s brainchild and inspiration, but it needed structuring, and my money and operational input, to make it happen.

You mentioned a more political role.
I’m helping the Lib Dems. I’ve known Simon Hughes for years – he is our local MP in Southwark, a great guy. There are various ways I can be helpful, in terms of systems, particularly marketing, which we’re very strong on, and IT and HR. I’m doing a bit of work for them and seeing how that goes. But it’s new to me. It’s a different language. It’s a different set of rules.

Would you consider working with other parties?
I’ve crossed the line now. I’ve got incredibly close friends in other parties and I would support them as people. I’ve never thought that I am ideologically Labour or I passionately believe in one party – quite the opposite. Now, for better or worse, I am with the Lib Dems.

What are your thoughts on the coalition so far?
I buy into a lot of what Nick Clegg was saying [in his conference speech]. Nick is a genuinely good, moral guy. The Lib Dems weren’t expecting to be in government. They weren’t organised. They had a lot of catching up to do, and they made some mistakes.

Do you think entering coalition was the right thing for the Lib Dems to do?
Definitely. You’ve got to dig in. In my life and my business, I’ve never done things that were expected. Maybe that is why I was attracted to Lib Dems .If they hadn’t, what would have happened? It’s just unthinkable.

Are you planning any more novels?
I find it so tiring and worrying and other words ending in -ing. But I’d like to. I don’t know if I’ve got to sharpen up my style or go to a few lessons. It’s got to be about something I really feel strongly about, rather than trying to be on a schedule of producing a book every eighteen months.

Tancredi, a satire about greed and excess in the modern world, by James Palumbo, is published on September 29th by Marlborough Press, priced £9.99